Various efforts in the US from both sides of the political aisle to free up more mobile spectrum have gone down well in some quarters, but not so well in others.

Nick Wood

March 14, 2024

5 Min Read

Shortly after the ink dried on various statements decrying the first anniversary of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)'s inability to auction spectrum, a group of Republican senators led by Ted Cruz introduced a bill to restore it.

The Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2024 seeks to reauthorise the watchdog to allocate spectrum, and orders it to identify no less than 2,500 MHz of spectrum between 1.3 GHz and 13.2 GHz that can be freed up for commercial purposes. It proposes that 1,250 MHz of that total be made available for licensed use, and it wants these frequencies to be identified no later than two years after the act passes – if indeed it does.

The bill is as ambitious as it is well timed, and unsurprisingly it went down well with US mobile operators.

AT&T's EVP of Federal legislative relations Mike Ferguson applauded Cruz and his colleagues for recognising the importance of freeing up more mid-band spectrum.

"Importantly, this bill allocates 1250 megahertz of licensed spectrum for mobile broadband services – a much-needed influx of this crucial resource that is necessary to meet America's insatiable demand for wireless connectivity," he said.

Verizon shared similar sentiments.

Robert Fisher, SVP of Federal government relations and public affairs said the bill is "a vital step toward ensuring US global competitiveness, bringing consumer choice to the home broadband marketplace, and delivering on the promise to close the digital divide."

Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of CTIA, was one of the more outspoken critics when Congress let the FCC's spectrum allocation authority lapse. She thanked the senators for "their leadership in pursuing the needed action to restore the FCC's auction authority and create a strong pipeline of full-power, licensed spectrum that will support Americans' growing wireless data use, protect our national security, and infuse real competition in the home broadband market."

Republican FCC commissioner Nathan Simington was also full of praise, calling it a "commonsense approach" to identifying and allocating spectrum for commercial use.

"The range of bands identified in this bill and the emphasis on licensed spectrum is crucial to allowing the US to keep its competitive edge against China as the world’s technology leader," he added.

The acclaim was not universal though.

Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America's Open Technology Institute, said in a report by Fierce Wireless that the bill is dead on arrival, with opposition likely to come from both sides of the aisle.

Not only does the bill fall too heavily in favour of licensed versus unlicensed spectrum, he said, he also slammed it for assuming the Pentagon will readily vacate its frequencies in the 3 GHz, 7 GHz and 8 GHz bands. That won't go down at all well with Democrats and some Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said.

The timing of the Republican-backed bill also raises questions about ulterior motives.

That's because this week saw the publication of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Spectrum Strategy Implementation Plan.

It's the next step in the Biden administration's effort to free up as much as 2,786 MHz of spectrum that was first identified back in November.

The frequencies are in the following bands:

  • 3.1 GHz-3.45 GHz

  • 5.03 GHz-5.091 GHz

  • 7.125 GHz-8.4 GHz

  • 18.1 GHz-18.6 GHz

  • 37.0 GHz-37.6 GHz

NTIA has now issued a timeline for studies it has commissioned that will report on the feasibility of reallocating these various bands for wireless use, including those currently used by Federal agencies.

"The US is in the midst of an intense competition for global leadership in the wireless space," said Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and NTIA administrator. "The Implementation Plan offers a roadmap to realise the vision of the National Spectrum Strategy and meet the global challenge before us."

Wi-Fi lobby group the Wi-Fi Alliance issued a glowing report on the development.

"This plan is an essential roadmap for collaboration between Federal and non-Federal stakeholders in the effort to address Americans' ever-increasing need for wireless connectivity. We look forward to contributing to its implementation," the group said.

CTIA's Attwell Baker was similarly enthused.

"We are pleased to see the administration restore NTIA leadership over spectrum studies, right the course on the lower 3 GHz band, and set up a critical review of the 7/8 GHz band," she said. "It is vital that the administration now move quickly to start these studies as we need decisive action on reallocating spectrum to secure our global economic competitiveness and innovation leadership."

The first report, which covers the 37.0 GHz-37.6 GHz band is due in November, but the final two – which relate to those Federal frequencies in the lower 3 GHz and 7 GHz-8GHz bands – aren't due out until October 2026.

This lengthy timeline gave Republican FCC commissioner Brendan Carr all the ammunition he needed to attack the plan.

"Neither band is likely to see the light of day until 2028 at the earliest under this plan. But remember, that's the best case. The administration has provided no assurance that these bands will ever be opened up for commercial use," he said.

"Under this administration, we now have a deficit of, on average, nearly 200 megahertz compared to other countries in mid-band spectrum available for commercial wireless use. And our deficit relative to China is now projected to be more than 1,200 megahertz by 2027," he continued.

Unsurprisingly, Carr is in favour of the alternative plan proposed by the new Spectrum Pipeline Act.

"That's a real spectrum implementation plan. And that is precisely the decisive and thoughtful approach needed to get the US back on track," he said.

So, what appeared at first to be the US trying to tackle its mid-band spectrum problem is actually just further evidence of intransigent partisanship, and more an opportunity for political point scoring than actually achieving something that will benefit end users.

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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